If God is Being, does prayer make sense?

In a recent article, Roger Olson contrasts his own “biblical” understanding of God as a personal being, albeit “the greatest of all beings, transcendently surpassing in greatness and glory all creatures,” with the traditional understanding of God as Being itself, infinite, unconditioned, absolute. The underlying assumption of the latter, he writes, “is that the biblical narrative does not give us an adequate, or any, metaphysical world picture, account of reality-itself, but expresses especially transcendent reality in myths, symbols and images which must be interpreted through the lens of some ontology borrowed from outside the Bible.” Defenders of the traditional understanding will immediately protest that Olson has ignored the revolutionary ways patristic and medieval theologians altered the pagan construal of divinity in the very process of appropriating Greek philosophical categories—to wit, the Christian assertion of the creatio ex nihilo and the Nicene formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Olson’s article might lead one to conclude that once having identified God as Being (St Gregory Nazianzen, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas) or as beyond Being (Dionysius the Areopagite, St Maximus the Confessor, St Gregory Palamas), Christians ceased to preach the living God of the Scriptures and to pray to him for forgiveness and healing and every good gift. Curiously this did not happen.

Olson fears that the identification of God as Being inevitably leads to an impersonal realization of divinity:

One reason I resist thinking of God as Being Itself as opposed to a personal being is that it tends to undermine prayer except as meditation. It lends itself easily to the idea that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” That is, it undermines petitionary prayer which Schleiermacher, understandably because of his philosophical influences, called “immature prayer.” If God is Being Itself, the Absolute, Unconditioned, then it would seem prayer cannot affect God. In fact, it would seem God cannot be affected by anything outside himself. My early Christian faith, which I have not entirely discarded (!), focused much on a “personal relationship with God.” God is someone, a being, who is other than I, and we stand vis-a-vis one another in what Buber and Brunner called an “I-Thou relationship.” Regarding God as Being Itself tends to lead away from relating to God as “Thou” with whom one can have a real, personal relationship.

This passage raised for me the following question: How does a classical theist like Aquinas, who confesses God as eternal, impassible, immutable, omnipotent, and omniscient, understand petitionary prayer? Does it make any sense to ask the Ipsum Esse Subsistens to heal my wife of her debilitating migraine headaches? I am insufficiently conversant with the writings of Aquinas to answer this question, but fortunately one of his 20th century students, Fr Herbert McCabe, addresses the subject of petitionary prayer in several of his essays.

God is not a being among beings. That’s precisely what the gods are—powerful beings within the universe that stand over against all other beings. Because they are distinct individuals with their own personal agendas, they may be petitioned, cajoled, persuaded, influenced, bribed, propitiated, placated, appeased, manipulated; and because they are powerful beings who can both do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves and do things to us against which we have no defense, petition and sacrifice are practical necessities for human survival and flourishing. But God, as transcendent Creator of all that is, cannot be such a god:

Why? Because gods are bits of the world or anyway bits of the universe. They stand alongside heroes and human beings and teacups, none of which are gods. Gods are different; they are a superior kind of being. The universe is divided into gods and non-gods as it is divided into sheep and non-sheep; the gods are items in the universe. Top items maybe, but still items. It is immediately apparent that whether the gods exist or not they cannot be the answer to why there is a universe at all, for they are part of the universe. Whatever is the answer to our question as put in the form ‘Why is there anything?’, it could not be one kind of thing in the universe or anything in the universe. In whatever way we understand the phrase ‘all of it’, God cannot be part of it. God cannot exist in the way that parts of the universe exist. He could not be an item in the universe. (God Still Matters, p. 56)

McCabe announces that the great Jewish discovery was the realization that the one God is the transcendent source of all that exists. Only this God is worthy of the worship and service of humanity. “The Creator is the reason why there is a universe with or without the gods in it,” he writes. “But if there are gods in it, it would be degrading for a human being to worship them” (p. 56). And for this reason, prayer within the Jewish, and therefore Christian, tradition “cannot mean petitioning a god. It cannot mean cajoling and persuading a god to be on your side” (p. 56).

It is at this point where the divide between classical theists and theistic personalists begins to emerge. Olson reads the biblical narrative and sees a conditioned, passible, dialogical divine being. Only such a God, he believes, is capable of entering into personal relationship with his creatures; only such a God is capable of making covenant and responding to the petitions of his people. McCabe would probably suggest that biblical theists like Olson are coming very close to reducing God to a god. If God has truly made the world from out of nothing, every moment sustaining it in existence by his omnipotent will, then he must not be pictured as standing alongside the realm of created beings. Olson would respond that biblical theists also affirm the one Creator, maker of heaven and earth, the critical difference being the seriousness with which they take the narrative rendering of deity. A plain reading of Scripture invites us, he believes, to construe divine sovereignty in relational terms. But how is this God not a god, even though there is only one of him? McCabe hammers home the implications of the Christian doctrine of creation:

The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is at the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves. (p. 59)

Though the biblical stories certainly appear to present God as a being among beings, they cannot be literally true. We must read them through our knowledge of him as transcendent Creator and infinite source of all being.  As the Apostle Paul declared to the Athenians: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. … Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:24-25, 27-28).

The radical transcendence of the Creator thus requires us to reconfigure and expand our understanding of prayer. The gods stand alongside us precisely as beings whom we may entreat and supplicate, just as we might a parent, friend, or king. They either accede to our requests or not, as they determine. But when god becomes God, then our understanding of prayer must change. “How then can we call upon God,” asks McCabe, “beseech Her, gain His attention, when our very cry for attention is made by God, more due to God than it is to ourselves, for it must be God that brings it about that I pray as it is God that brings it about that I draw my next breath?” (p. 59). The Creator does not only hear our prayers; he initiates them, causes them, and sustains them in being.

Prayer confronts us with the mystery of our creaturely existence and thus with the Mystery who is Prayer.

(Go to “God is Prayer”)

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20 Responses to If God is Being, does prayer make sense?

  1. brian says:

    The notion that one must be ignorant of metaphysics or perhaps indifferent to it or hostile to it in order to maintain prayerful communion with God is belied by millennia of Christian experience. If anything, inadequate metaphysical interest has led to idolatrous conceptions of God. Indeed, one might speculate that shallow, unsatisfying prayer life, moralizing theology, emotive, populist sentimentalism without proper wonder before mystery, a sense that religion is boring and tedious, incomprehension before mystical insight or the confusion of contemplative prayer with psychological platitudes are all linked to an impoverished sense of deity. Biblical positivism is cut off from the soul’s innate desire to know God deeply. There is a fideist suspicion that confuses post-Enlightenment rationalism with reason and the intellect’s natural desire to know with arrogance. In place of the child-like wonder that fuels the metaphysical search, one is given a forestalling of the soul’s eros in the name of a religious fidelity that is more truthfully a presumptive refusal to seek the depths.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Biblical positivism”—yes, exactly. I am going to remember and use that phrase at some point in the near future. 🙂

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  2. Referring to Olson, you say: “Only such a God, he believes, is capable of entering into personal relationship with his creatures”

    Certainly “personal relationship” is something which Olson wishes to believe is realized between God and ourselves. However, I’m curious whether you think this is a notion that needs to be maintained? Or is there perhaps a better description for the way people relate to God?

    Just last night I had a conversation with my father about this exact topic; since he attends an evangelical church, he mentioned that he often feels a sort of discomfort when told of the pressing need for all to enter into “personal relationship” with God. For many, myself and my father included, it’s very difficult to even be able to understand what is meant by this, and much more difficult to experience anything remotely analogous to a concrete personal relationship with God.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Jonathan. I wrote a “profound” comment in response to yours, but my browser froze up when I attempted to post it … and I was so p****d I had to wait a couple of hours before trying again.

      Good question. I used to use the language of “personal relationship with Jesus” during the first 15 years or so of my ministry. That was when I was active in Cursillo. I also was gifted with a charismatic “baptism in the Spirit” during the summer after my first year in seminary. But I eventually cooled to this kind of pietistic language. It is so very vulnerable to dishonesty and misrepresentation. And quite frankly, I have no idea what it means. What qualifies as an “impersonal” relationship with Jesus?

      The above amounts to about 1/4 of what I wrote before, and certainly does not capture the “profundity” of my earlier reflection. Alas, this will have to do for now.

      There is no relationship to the living God that is not personal.

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      • AR says:

        Doesn’t it mean that someone wishes, not just to stand in a certain relation to Christ (“he is Savior to me; I am servant to him,” or whatever) but actually to encounter his person in a way one can directly perceive within one’s own person?

        Is standing in the proper relationship to Christ enough to save and sanctify? Or is some personal encounter necessary?

        I do feel certain that it is wrong to talk about this intimacy with Christ as if we are morally responsible to make it happen. The very fact that Christ is a Person means that we ought to approach him courteously, and not to force ourselves on him, and if we do experience some encounter with him, it must be a free and sincere exchange between ourselves and him.

        However, all of this is outside the issues of God’s primal nature, if it’s all right to talk that way, which is already intimately present to all of us as described in this wonderful post, in McCabe’s wonderful language. In that case what we want is perception, right?

        A truly endless subject.

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        • brian says:

          Yep, God is always already intimately present to us. If not, we would cease to exist.
          In this sense, the relation to God is a given in a way that is metaphysically necessary, differing from what we think of as our adventitious relations to other creatures. (Whether they are really adventitious and unnecessary is another question.) Regardless, prayer is intimacy that is sometimes lost in unknowing, but even that is a kind of perception (at minimum, an apophatic awareness of divine transcendence.)

          What we mean by personal, however, is the kind of unique opening to another that is both perception, liberation, sharing, expansion of one’s own self by union with the other, an increase of powers that is more than arithmetic addition — and, this is important, acknowledgement. We receive ourselves back from the other. The person can never really simply assert or even realize him or herself apart from a manifold otherness. God is the ultimate speaker of the name, so perception in prayer involves both awareness of God, self, and world. This is hard enough to conceptually appreciate when one is only dealing with a creature. If one begins to appreciate the divine splendor, it becomes obvious that one needs the Spirit to perceive and commune.

          I love the language of courtesy, and I wish that the typical American effusiveness with regards to a personal relationship with God would comprehend enough to see it’s relevance.

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        • Jonathan says:

          Brian, AR, perhaps one of you might like to say more about what you mean by courtesy. I am intrigued by the word’s appearance here. “Courtesy” comes from the same root as court, i.e. the court of a noble or a king. Courtesy is how one behaves at court, in the presence of one’s betters — or indeed, of one’s sovereign. Although I suspect many Americans today might assume that courteous means about the same as polite, in fact the notions are far apart. Politeness and courtesy can overlap in some situations, but they evoke very different cultural assumptions. Politeness is basically about being kind and considerate, whereas courtesy is how one encounters aura. Courtesy contains ideas of formula, rule, rite and ritual: these are what govern the proceedings of a court, whether royal or legal. Above all, what intrigues me is that in the archaic court, in courtesy, we find performative speech, as well as other kinds of efficacious sign. Pretty much any sort of prescribed gesture is an act of courtesy, such as signing the cross, bowing, kneeling, doffing one’s hat. . . Well, you’ve got me thinking. Much obliged.

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          • brian says:

            Certainly, I had in mind much that you have alluded to. I think Charles Williams has a good sense of all this. I particularly like the way Williams combines a sense of play, grandeur, and precision — not in the modern calculative sense, but as a joyous appreciation of truth. Williams also has a nice grasp of the dynamism of hierarchy and how we are always in a finely calibrated dance where one can find oneself both leader and follower in different respects. There’s an essay in The Image of the City that addresses this, but I am at work and cannot retrieve it to discover the title of that particular essay. Anyway, I believe you know Williams well already, Jonathan.

            Also, Jean Hani has some good books on liturgy and kingship that I think are helpful, if perhaps slightly tangential. The English translation of the book on kingship appears to be out of print, but the French original is available.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Brian, I know Williams, but I’ve never even heard of Hani. His work looks great. Several of his books I definitely have to get my hands on, and you may get your revenge on me for Lafferty, because it looks like I’m going to have to spend some money to do so. By the way, an odd institution I’ve never run across before, the Matheson Trust, seems to have just reissued La royauté sacrée in English.

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          • AR says:

            Jonathan, one of my favorite books is “History in English Words” by Barfield. I am delighted by the idea that the way to speak and write living prose is to use each word with regard to its history, allowing it to remain connected by however many branching genealogies to the humid tongues that uttered it on the day it was born, and by those ways to the procreative realities that conceived it.

            Not that I succeed in doing so exhaustively, but I do use ‘courtesy’ with awareness of its living meaning.

            I see in courtesy less formality and protocol, and more a sensitive and elevated generosity. There is courtesy between equals, of course. But in the case of courtesy between those whose ranks and excellencies are unequal, the awareness of position that each party must inevitably feel, instead of being explicitly acted out as in occasions of state, in the intimate courteous encounter withdraws behind the bravery of face-to-face mutuality. This is especially true of Christian courtesy which has a strong tendency to rejoice in chivalrous reversals.

            Modern appraisal of chivalry sees only the strong condescending to the weak, but in fact the feeling behind Christian chivalry is that particular and elevated joy that people experience who are grasping hands in a common humanity over the barrier of a differentiated rank. (When the rank disappears, the joy has no occasion.) And more than that, when the higher in rank or stronger in body elevates and honors the lesser in rank or the weaker in body, and when the lesser and weaker does the greater the honor of confiding in and crediting his humility, meeting him face-to-face, this very particular sort of joy becomes exquisite. It becomes exquisite because the exchange of heart’s warmth that ensues is sweet.

            In a perfect world with no evils, differences of rank and excellency would be the griefless challenge by which love strengthened itself and wrote its story.

            The rougher one’s way of life, the more difficult it is to cultivate such attitudes in oneself or to nurture them in one’s children. Or even to convince the unconscious anarchists among whom we live that such experiences are possible and proper, who feel that anything other than the razing of the equalizers is abhorrent.

            I could go into this more, but suffice it to say that most Americans, if our films and books are any indication, have a really wretched sense of what royalty and nobility and chivalry and courtliness are all about. Of course our relationship to God is utterly unique, but we have always expressed it in terms of our human relationships. With marriage gasping its last (societally speaking) the only remaining human relationship which can express the exchange between God and man is Friendship. It’s not a bad relationship for the job, but it is currently being forced to bear too much weight. In particular, that aspect of the exchange which is its inequality has little correspondence in Friendship.

            Therefore, cultural assumptions can go and suckle at Hel’s slaggish teat as far as I am concerned.

            “How one encounters aura” is interesting. What is your thinking behind that phrase?

            (Fr. Kimel, I know this is long; I hope not objectionably so?)

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          • Jonathan says:

            Thanks for your thoughts, AR. They’re well put and I tend to agree. These questions of courtesy and hierarchy, etc interest me a great deal.

            As for aura, I would have used a less nebulous word if I knew one that would suffice. I would say aura surrounds or emanates from that which puts us in touch with the transcendental, that which is not explainable purely in terms of material conditions and cultural activity, even though it can only manifest through such conditions and activity. Generally speaking, the events or moments in regular life where we used to most intensely experience what I’m calling aura — birth, marriage, death, the encounter with authority (different from power), and worship (among others, like victory celebrations and rites of passage) — have been divested of aura. One way I sometimes put this is to say we’ve turned rites into rights. And despite a greater diversity of forms (which actually amounts to formlessness), there is in fact a feeling of flatness, blandness, sameness, and predictability, where we once expected to perceive a unique and unrepeatable intrusion of the mysterious, an intrusion made possible precisely through a shared belief in the validity and authenticity of cultural form.

            The protocols and habits of courtesy evolve, I think, to help us navigate our encounters with people, places and events imbued with aura, the transcendental shining forth from behind the appearance of contingent things (whether rare or quotidian), or sometimes spelling itself out in the language of symbols (there you have a literacy entirely gone from the West, which is largely why worship is to most people incomprehensible and awkward: we might have heard about symbolism, but none of us live among symbols in the way, for instance, Baudelaire imagines in his famous poem “Les correspondances” — but that’s *just* a poem, not how most people consciously experience the world). While I would say plenty of people today are very polite and pleasant, it’s much harder to be courteous because the kinds of intentional gestures that make up courteous practice tend either to be senseless now, or to make us feel, as you pointed out, condescending or condescended to. People are more comfortable with moribund stasis (we’re all prone to wanting this), but when we encounter aura we are one second honoring and the next second honored. It is like a dance, as Brian (& Charles Williams) suggests — heck, sometimes it actually is a dance.

            Sorry, this is too long. Didn’t mean to derail.

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          • AR says:

            Jonathan, that’s great. Love it.

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  3. Karen says:

    “The Creator does not only hear our prayers; he initiates them, causes them, and sustains them in being.”

    Wouldn’t we want to qualify this by saying this is true of prayer *according to God’s will* (which is what we want our prayer increasingly to be–reflecting an increasing realization of our communion with Him)? Isn’t there “prayer” (which maybe doesn’t qualify as the real thing) that is according to the gnomic will for which God makes room, but which is not inspired by Him? James 4:2-3 comes to mind.

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    • Harald Frebel says:

      Psalm 109:4 says, “In return for my love they are my accusers, but I am prayer.” This is the literal translation of the Hebrew “I am prayer” This is the Lord. He just reacts with prayer. And this is what James brings out in in chapter 5, verse 13: “is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” This is the kingdom life.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Karen. I do not have an answer to your question. The next article will speak to prayer as life in the Holy Trinity, but I suspect it will provide an answer either.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Karen, if we take if as a basic principle that God does not cause human evil, does that help us think through the problem? Is there prayer that is evil? Is it evil to pray for something that is evil? What shall we say about the imprecatory psalms? Are they true prayers?

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  4. mary says:

    One of our Catholic saints, the Curé of Ars (also quoted by Met. Anthony Bloom) has said that prayer is “union with God”. I am too simple for all of the discussion above – so I settle for this. Yes, God is Being itself and my soul was made for and yearns for union with Him.

    All of the words and actions of my “prayers” are the ways God and the Church have given me to help me realize that union for which I was made. Of course, I tell God what I need and what others need. My sin causes me to see myself (rightly) as separated from His Being and therefore there is a gap, so to speak, between my need and His response.

    When union is realized, there is no longer any gap, no longer any need for words or asking. But for now, I cannot bridge that gap by my own effort and so I do the work of “prayer” so that, through God’s help, I might come to know union (true prayer). My effort is necessary for there to be union but certainly not sufficient.

    In “Beginning to Pray”, Met. Bloom commented on the notion of “personal relationship” by contrasting it with a functional relationship. In a functional relationship, the emphasis is on the function, e.g. the auto mechanic, not specifically Joe (any auto mechanic would do). With God, we might be at a stage where we see God in terms of function, e.g. Creator, Divine Being, etc. But this would be different than having a personal relationship with God whom I might have a unique way of addressing because He is the God of my heart, not just Divine Being in function.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article.

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  5. Karen says:

    Fr. Aidan, I suspect the quote I highlight assumes true prayer and that this can have a counterfeit counterpart, where what we “pray” for is self-serving (in the bad sense–I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask for God to meet our needs) and evil–not inspired by the Holy Spirit (Whom in one of our EO prayers we ask to “pray in us”).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Karen, I’ve been ruminating on your question about authentic prayer. I find it all very complex. What qualifies as counterfeit prayer? I presume it would be a a prayer that intends evil, such as “Lord, smite my next door neighbor” or “Father, in the name of Jesus please prosper my genocidal campaign” or something like that. The odd thing about these prayers, is that despite their obvious evil, they are still addressed in faith to God. Is it better for these people never to pray (i.e., cut themselves off completely from God) or to go ahead to ask for what they think are the desires of their hearts, despite the evil their prayers intend?

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      • Karen says:

        Well, here’s a little more food for your rumination. Can someone who asks for evil such as the prospering of his genocidal campaign be sincerely praying to the God revealed in Jesus Christ? Or is the use of the term “God” in prayer at this point pure nominalism and a prayer made to a “deity” of one’s own evil and deluded imagination? Isn’t the latter what is happening when members of ISIS do their evil deeds in the name of “Allah” (whom they also define as the only “God” and Creator of all, but whose will and character as understood and taught by the Jihadists are not those of the God revealed in Jesus Christ)? Can “faith” in this kind of “God” benefit anyone? Might not atheism or agnosticism at this point be a step in the right direction for such a “believer.”

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